Review by Win Wiacek
Roy Crane’s bluff, two-fisted, edgily capable and utterly dependable down-on-his-luck “Southern Gen’leman” was something previously unseen in newspaper strips: a raw, square-jawed hunk played dead straight rather than the mere buffoon or music hall foil of such classic comics as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond. Moreover Crane’s seductively simple blend of comic exuberance and compelling semi-serious “bigfoot” cartooning was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the gorgeous yet static illustrative tableaux style favoured by artists like Hal Foster.
The third terrific tome in this stupendous four-volume set covers May 22nd 1938 to December 15th 1940 and opens as usual with considerable learned historical context, including a feature on Leslie Turner, Crane’s assistant, and from this point creator of the colour Sunday strip.
As seen in Volume 2, after a spectacular string of solo adventures the solitary soldier of fortune at last met Wash Tubbs, continuity having reached the point where he’s stuck in a jail cell in a Ruritanian European kingdom, the circumstances in which he was introduced in the daily strip. As seen in Wash’s strip years previously, Wash risks life and diminutive limb to save his pal, and also rescues sultry spitfire Ruby Dallas who promptly entangles them in her own unfortunate tale of woe.
This volume heralds the irrepressible humour which Turner would increasingly bring into the feature and the stories – although still action adventures – abound with breezy, light-hearted banter, outrageous situations, hilarious slapstick and outright farce – a sure-fire formula cinema still plunders. Turner’s Sunday strips increasingly sideline Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy in favour of an array of new and returning supporting characters, presumably to allow Crane more leeway, if not exclusivity on the stars he’d created, Tubbs and Easy. It’s only in the later Sunday strips they again return to prominence. Easy becomes a freelance spy-hunter and crimebuster in a nation progressively, inevitably marching towards war. The tone remains light and humorous, but the writing was on the wall.
Over the daily strips Crane’s exuberance shows no bounds. Wild comedic adventure is the order of the day, and the effect and influence of Crane’s pages can be seen in so many strips since, especially the works of near-contemporaries such as Hergé and giants-in-waiting like Charles Schulz.
Also included are many examples of original artwork, and this colossal luxury hardback compilation (pages 380 x 270mm) even includes an extra colour tear-sheet plus a full hand-coloured page by Crane, used as a guide by the print processors to produce the final flat-hued instalments.
This is storytelling of impeccable quality. These tales rank alongside the best of Hergé, Tezuka, Toth and Kirby, and unarguably fed the imaginations of them all as they still should for today’s comics creators. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist? Crane’s involvement concludes in Volume 4.